Please visit the new home of Majikthise at

« Zengerle and Foer protect dishonest source | Main | The White House's war on the press »

June 27, 2006

Why journalists should burn dishonest sources

Journalists have a duty to expose anonymous sources who knowingly deceive them. Anonymity is a quid pro quo, and ethical journalists only offer it in exchange for valuable information that they can't get any other way.

The promise of anonymity shouldn't be absolute. Anonymous sourcing sacrifices some transparency for the sake of important information. A source who knowingly peddles forgeries under the cover of anonymity is abusing the reporter's trust and the trust of his or her readers. That kind of behavior must have consequences.

The best remedy is to reveal the identity of the person who passed off the fraudulent information in bad faith. The only reason we tolerate anonymous sources is to get good information. By practicing deception under the cover of anonymity, dishonest informants thereby undermine whatever justification the reporter had for granting anonymity in the first place.

The public has a right to know who's shopping bogus stories to the press. We also have a right to know who duped the reporter in question. Granting anonymity is a journalistic judgement call. When a source turns out to be a fraud, we need to know who that source was so that we can assess whether the journalist granted anonymity responsibly. If it turns out that the reporter has been granting anonymity frivolously, or to blatantly untrustworthy sources, he or she shouldn't be allowed to simply blame the anonymous source and move on.

For example, it makes a big difference who Jason Zengerle of the New Republic was dealing with. If we don't know the identity of the informant who forwarded Zengerle the partially fabricated email, we have no way of knowing whether Zengerle was honestly duped or whether he was using anonymity to conceal the dubious quality of his source.

The policy of burning deliberately deceptive anonymous sources should be enforced at the editorial level. Once deception and bad faith have been established, it shouldn't be the reporter's decision. If, after consulting with the reporter, an editor is convinced that a source was deliberately deceptive, the source's identity should be revealed as a matter of institutional policy.

Anonymous sourcing is a necessary evil. Enforcing consequences for those who abuse a reporter's trust will improve the quality of anonymous sourcing overall.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Why journalists should burn dishonest sources:


Lindsay, you're making way too much sense for the goofy-ass world we live in.

Obligatory O/T aside: I love the new pic. You should be playing guitar in an indie band. Assuming you're not doing that already.

Burning your source if they lie to you may seem like a fair trade off ethically to some, but I'd say that stance is unrealistic at best. When an anonymous source gets outed, all people remember is that the reporter betrayed the source... the reason... while it may even be a good and ethical one, is not something future sources are likely to care about.

Bear in mind, if you're an anonymous rat, you're probably doing questionable things all the time, as it is. So if you can't trust the certainty of the 'protection' when it comes to a certain reporter, you simply go elsewhere. Not burning a bad source actually increases a reporter's value to other sources who might be spreading bad info with the good, knowingly or unknowingly.

Also, now this source owes the reporter he gave bad information to, big time. Information flow, long term, is sometimes more important than one embarrassing story.

Information bartering, like any kind of trade, can be a sleazy business, even for those with high ideals.

Although I don't disagree with the feeling here, hang the fucker, I just don't think its so cut and dry in the real world. This is much the way I feel about the 'death penalty' actually, some people deserve to die, in my opinion, but the cost to society of actually killing people, for 'justice', seems too high. The cost of burning the source maybe have been in this case aswell.

Oh, and glad you kept the Cash.

I generally agree, but it may not be entirely practical for a reporter, especially on a sensitive beats where a reporter is continually talking to people off the record...

If you get a reputation for someone who will burn an anonymous source who trucked in misinformation, then just about anyone who might be willing to speak on condition of anonymity might be shy.

For myself, it was always a matter of whether I felt the mis-/dis-information was deliberate or not.

That said, if someone deliberately fed me something wrong with the belief that I was going to print it, then fsck 'em... they get spaced out the airlock...

mojo sends

The problem is "everything" these days has "value"... including access to information. The access to power makes reporters goofy to say the least.

But when someone wants anonymity and then lies or gives you bogus information... that source... and that is a generous word... should be outed.

The idea that information has to be fed in secret, back channels and "on background" from a anonymous source is so bogus. Why the stealth?

Can't we have a little light in the world? Just a little...

Is there any extended justification for using anonymous sources. Reporters always say 'we need anonymous sources', but why do we take there word for it?

There is a great Ph.D. out there for someone on epistemology and journalistic methods.

If I knew a secret that I wanted to give to the press, and I wanted anonymity, I would be very wary of dealing with a reporter who played by your rules.

Why should I trust his judgement on what is or isn't the truth? If he's so worried that I'll fool him with a lie, shouldn't I be worried that someone else will fool him into thinking I lied?

(P.S. I like the new picture much better too.)

Vanmojo made a good point earlier in this thread, namely, that journalists should only burn their sources if they and their editors are convinced that the source knowingly misled the reporter. In practice, it's often difficult to establish deliberate deception. I'm not saying that reporters should burn every anonymous source whose story doesn't pan out. However, when you know that a source lied to you, you have a responsibility to expose them. Maybe that will deter some people from coming forward, but the policy is much more likely to defer fakers than honest people.

People get things wrong.
Short of being reasonably certain that one is being "used" to propagate garbage, I suspect abstract moral points won't cut much ice with a crowd told you've broken confidence.

I agree with Windypundit: it's not that hard to mount a concerted campaign to discredit a source. It all depends on how tightly knit the community doing the discrediting is (e.g. I don't think the people on the Townhouse mailing list could do it), and on how far the people are willing to go to protect their dirty secrets.

So to prevent that pathology from destroying whistleblowers, you can relax your rule and say that it depends on the source's reputation: a source that repeatedly gets things right gets more slack after one infraction than a new source or a source that gets things wrong several times. Alternatively, you can require that journalists identify their sources at least by alias, so that readers will know e.g. that Deep Throat is always the same person.

Oh, I'm glad that everyone is cautioning Ms. Beyerstein on how burning blatantly mendacious sources would have a chilling effect on legitimate sources coming forward. Someone passed Mr. Zengerle a deliberately forged piece of information. This is not some convoluted moral calculus at work here. God, what a chilling effect it would have on anonymous sources if they didn't feel free to make shit up with no consequences. Likewise, Ms. Miller's sources weren't trying heroically to get the truth out, they were deliberately shoveling the administration's bullshit. When objective reality turns out to conflict with what your sacred "anonymous source" has been feeding you, you burn them. Sure, a source can be wrongfully discredited. Look at how Richard Clarke was beaten up by anonymous White House sources lying about him in the press. Oh, wait, bad example. Yes, we need to avoid "jumping the gun" just because a source passed on a rumour that didn't pan out. But don't tell me that it's impossible to tell the difference between that and deliberate falsehoods being peddled to destroy someone else's reputation.

So yeah, outing demonstrable liars will put such a damper on genuine whistle blowers. Unlike, say, the President of the United States throwing a tantrum on the TV about how journalists should be punished for thinking we still have a Bill of Rights.

Ther trouble is that the source may be making an honest error. If Zengerle's source passed on information from a third party believing it was true, burning the source does nothing to advance good journalism. You cloud argue that publishing material that's second hand is de facto bad journalism (and I'd accept that argument), but there's enough wiggle room there that a potential source may well be reluctant to talk on the off chance that an error or miscommunication would result in outing and the potential career destruction that comes with it.

In practice, source burning is rare because it's difficult to establish with certainty that a source deliberately lied. Journalists and editors don't like burning sources. As some of the working reporters on this thread have pointed out, nobody wants that kind of reputation.

However, I think it's important to have the editorial rule that known liars get burned. It makes journalists think more carefully about whom they trust enough to grant anonymity to. It also makes sources more careful about what kind of information they're willing to put forward. Really, only ironclad info deserves anonymity. If you're dealing with evidence that your source could easily be honestly mistaken about, that source probably didn't deserve anonymity in the first place.

In the Zengerle case, his original source refused to answer follow-up emails after the fake-Gilliard email was revealed to be bogus. Under those circumstances, I think there's a prima facie case to burn that source--Somebody passed off a fake document and stonewalled the reporter when he tried to get more information about the provenance of the email.

"If you're dealing with evidence that your source could easily be honestly mistaken about, that source probably didn't deserve anonymity in the first place."

If you're dealing evidence that your source could easily be honestly mistaken about, you either find better evidence or don't write the story.

I don't disagree that known liars deserve to get burned, but I don't trust reporters to make that judgement.

Suppose I work in government and I hear a story about some agency head accepting a bribe from a regulated company. I pass that along to a reporter, and he writes a story. The agency head responds with a pretty good case that the story is false.

First of all, how could I have known how the reporter would use the information? Maybe I assumed he would check it before running with it. Maybe he's an idiot for that, but now the news editor is pissed off and paying attention and he want me burned.

Second, maybe I thought the story was correct when I passed it on, but somebody lied to me. Now I'm on the hook for it.

Third, with the bad story out there, the reporter knows he can blow my identity in the name of burning a bad source. I could lose my job, so an unscrupulous reporter can use that threat to extort other information out of me.

I'm making up horror stories here, of course. Most of the time things will go smoothly. But if I've got information I'm thinking about leaking, it's the horror stories that will worry me.

Consider an analogy: Suppose a pair of FBI agents knock on your door with a few questions.

It's a federal crime to lie to the FBI, even if that lie isn't being used to obstruct justice. If the agents think you are lying, they can tag you with a federal felony arrest, and all the legal hell that goes with it.

Does that make you more likely or less likely to answer their questions?

WP wrote:

If you're dealing evidence that your source could easily be honestly mistaken about, you either find better evidence or don't write the story.

I think we agree. Many journalists are too quick to promise anonymity in exchange for low-grade information. I trust journalists to make that determination in consultation with their editors. There's nobody else to make that call.

In your hypothetical example, you're passing along a tip to a reporter about a suspected bribe. If you specify that your conversation is off-the-record and you're dealing with an ethical journalist, you can trust that the reporter won't cite you as a source, even if he or she goes on to investigate the story based on the information you gave. Accepting information on background or off-the-record is not the same as citing anonymous sources. It's a whole different matter if you agree to go on the record but request anonymity.

Ah, I see the distinction you're making, and maybe we do agree. Certainly it should be an option for a reporter to insist on the right to burn a source for lying under carefully worked-out circumstances. In fact, if I were a sourcewith a true story I really wanted to get out, I'd probably make that offer to a reporter myself.

The comments to this entry are closed.